GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #13
Mom and Dad decided against a summer tour in 1964. They needed a rest, and they wanted to spend some time relaxing with Sandy and me and with the little girls—who were no longer very little. They decided on a vacation in Hawaii.
"Oh, this stiff neck of mine!" Dad groaned as he eased himself into a chair one afternoon. "It hasn't let up for days."
"You've had that pain in your neck for too long, Honey," Mom scolded. "I want you to see a doctor before we leave for Hawaii."
"Nah! I probably gave it a good jerk when I was out racing in the speedboat."
"Or on the motorcycle, or doing stunts, or any one of a thousand other things you've done these past 30 years. But how you did it isn't the problem. The problem is, you certainly can't go on in pain like this."
"We'll see, Mama," Dad said. "It'll go away."
But the pain didn't go away. It worsened day by day, until Dad was in so much pain he could no longer stand it. He finally agreed to see a doctor.
The examination revealed that the fifth, sixth and seventh vertebrae were jammed together because the discs were worn. The only solution was surgery. Doctors at the UCLA Medical Center would take a bone from Dad's hip and use it to separate the vertebrae. Dad urged Mom to take Sandy, the little girls, and me to Hawaii alone. He would stay home to rest and have the surgery when we returned, since we all needed that vacation. Mom agreed.
We loved Hawaii! The girls loved the water and the music, and it was like a dream for Sandy. Everywhere he looked, there were servicemen. "As soon as I'm old enough," he told me, "I'm going to enlist!"
"Really, Sandy?" I asked. "Which branch?"
"Oh, I don't know. In the army I guess. That's all I've ever wanted. Come on. I'll race you to the water!"
When we returned, Dad went to the hospital. The surgery seemed to last forever, and even though it went well, Debbie mooned around the house, worrying. Mom tried to reassure her, but about a week after the surgery, Dad started running a fever. His pain level increased, and the doctors identified his problem as a severe staph infection in his hip. His condition worsened daily. For five weeks it was touch and go, and we didn't know if we were going to lose him. Finally, he seemed to stabilize, but his condition remained critical.
"Is Daddy going to be okay, Mama?" Debbie asked several times a day. "Will he be home soon? Can I go see him?"
"Honey, we just have to trust Jesus," Mom would way. "It's going to be a little longer before we can bring him home. He's been so sick, it will take him some time to spring back. He needs to spend some time in the convalescent hospital because he's too weak to take care of himself here at home."
"I could take care of him," Debbie said.
Mom just hugged her. "Listen, Debbie Lee. I've been watching how grown-up you're getting to be. Almost 12! I want to have your picture taken. It won't do for you to look all worried in it, so you perk up!"
Debbie did perk up when she went to visit Dad, and he was always more cheerful after her visits. Although all of us responded to her warmth and affection, the magic between Dad and Debbie had never diminished.
One summer day just before her birthday, Debbie rushed into the house, dragging Dodie behind her. "Mom! Mom! Guess what?"
"A bunch of us from church are going to get to go to Tijuana next Monday," Dodie explained.
"We're going to take gifts to the children in the orphanage down there. Maybe we can take some flowers. I love flowers, don't you? Kathy and Joanne Russell are going. Isn't that neat? We can go, can't we, Mom?"
"I don't know, Honey," Mom said absently. "Dusty, did you and Sandy get that trash hauled out?"
"But Mom! You always let us choose the way we celebrate our birthdays," Debbie reminded her. "Since mine is that week, can't this be my present? Please?" Debbie grabbed Mom's hand dramatically and squeezed.
"Oh, all right! And I have good news, too. The doctor said that if your dad continues to improve, the doctor may take him off the critical list pretty soon!"
I knew that Mom was worried about Dad. The stresses of the past few weeks were beginning to take their toll. The following Sunday we went to church as usual. I sat with the high school kids, and Debbie sat in the choir. Dodie was with Mom. During the service, Dodie suddenly didn't feel well. At home, Mom put her to bed.
"I'm afraid your Tijuana trip is out," she told Debbie. "You may end up with this same bug! I think you'd better stay home. Cheer up, though, Honey. The doctor said we can move Daddy to the convalescent hospital tomorrow. He's doing better!"
Debbie was thrilled about Dad, but she was heartsick about the trip. She pleaded and begged, and Mom finally gave in. The next day Mom dropped Debbie off at the church before she drove to the convalescent hospital in Bel Air, where Dad had settled in at one that afternoon. Just off the critical list, he was still hooked up to 4 bottles, and he was in a body cast. Sandy and I spent part of the day at the church, and late that afternoon we headed home. When we went into the house, Granny Minor was on the telephone. As she spoke, I became aware of snatches of conversation.
"... try to keep it from the press ... if Mr. Rogers hears it on the radio ... yes, on the highway there between Oceanside and San Clemente .... yes, it was terrible .... little Joanne Russell, too .... The police said they would need someone to go down there and make a positive identification."
"What's wrong, Granny?" I asked when she had placed the receiver back on the telephone.
"Oh, Dusty. Sandy. I didn't hear you come in." Her eyes were all red, and she began to cry. "I have some terrible news. We just got word from the police." She started crying.
"Police?" I was puzzled. "What is it?"
"Your sister. . . Debbie . . . Debbie was killed today!"
Sandy and I just stood there. It didn't make sense. Sandy and I sat down, and a kind of hazy disbelief fell on us for a few minutes.
"Granny, how did it happen?" I asked. Sandy just sat there, shaking his head.
"The bus and a station wagon hit each other head on. They think the bus blew a tire and swerved into the oncoming traffic. Everyone in the car was killed, and little Joanne Russell and Debbie."
"What was that about identification?" I asked.
"They need someone to make a positive identification. They would prefer someone from the family, but. . . "
"I can go, Granny, I have my car. But where's Mom?"
"She left the hospital about 45 minutes ago. She's on her way home now. Oh, I hope this isn't on the radio. She always has that radio on. If she hears it ... " Granny began to cry again.
Suddenly I felt a kind of warmth come over me. It was a hot summer day, and a warm breeze was blowing outside, but this was a different kind of warmth. It was like an anointing. Immediately I felt calm, peaceful—settled.
All right now, Dusty. You're it. Your mother is coming home, and your dad is not here for her. Don't get hysterical; don't get excited. Just be here for your mom.
"Granny, Mom has to be taken care of before anything else happens," I said. "Does Dad know?"
"No. We called Mr. Rush, and he called the hospital. They've disconnected the radio and television, and they aren't allowing any visitors or telephone calls until Mr. Rush arrives. I don't know what we're going to do about your mama."
"I'll take care of it, Granny."
Not long after that I heard Mom's car come whipping up in the driveway. Sandy and I went out to meet her. She hopped out of the car and called to us.
"Hi, boys! How are you?"
Sandy started crying, and all the color drained from her face.
"What's wrong? What's wrong?" she cried.
Just then Granny Minor came outside, and she was crying.
"Oh no!" Mom cried. "Is it Roy? Has something happened to Roy?"
"No, Dale," Granny said quietly. "It's Debbie."
Then all hell broke loose. Mom burst into tears and ran into the house. She collapsed against the window seat, and Sandy and I followed her.
"Why, God? Why did you do this to me again?" she cried out. "Why my baby again? Oh, Jesus, please, please help me!"
I sat down next to her, and I took her by the shoulders. She was crying so hard that I shook her a little to get her attention.
"Mom!" I said firmly. "Mom! For as long as I can remember, you've been telling me to trust Jesus. Now is the time for you to do that. Debbie is okay! She's with Him!" She nodded, and she put her head in my lap and cried. I held her for what seemed like hours. Finally, she grew quiet,
"Mom," I whispered, "what about Dad? You have to pull yourself together now. He's not strong enough to handle this. He's going to need you. And what about Dodie?"
"Oh, my God! That poor child!"
"She's in the backyard, Dale," Granny told her. Mom found Dodie sitting with the dogs, crying. They talked together for awhile, but I never learned what they said to each other. They cried some more, and after they came in, Mom called the hospital.
"Well," she said after a while, "he knows. Art told him."
"Is he okay?" Granny Minor asked.
Mom shook her head. "Art said he went to pieces. 'Why her?' he kept asking. 'Why her?'" Mom started crying again. "Then he became so angry that he tore out all his IVs. Art and the nurses got him calmed down, and then he cried. He kept trying to get out of bed, and they finally put him under heavy sedation. They're afraid he'll tear up the repairs they've done. He's back in intensive care now. I'm going out to the hospital in a few minutes."
In a time like that, a certain numbness takes over, and it's hard to piece everything together later on. Most of the events of the hours that followed remain a blur to all of us. Bob Russell—Joanne's father—and their family doctor drove to San Diego and identified Debbie and Joanne at the coroner's office. For Bob, the experience must have been shattering. The accident left both girls terribly mutilated. Apparently Debbie and Joanne had been standing near the front of the bus when the left front tire blew. Debbie went through the windshield and Joanne was jammed beneath the dashboard. They were on a section of Interstate 5 that had come to be know as Slaughter Alley because of the outrageous number of traffic fatalities that occurred there week after week. It was several more years—and many more tragic deaths—before the State of California widened the two-lane highway and made it a safe thoroughfare.
Because Joanne's sister Kathy was severely injured in the accident, her family was with her at the hospital in Oceanside. Mom made the arrangements for a double funeral at Forest Lawn, selecting both caskets and ordering all the flowers. A representative from Forest Lawn suggested the caskets remain closed. The coroner, he explained, had advised the caskets not be opened because the physical damage was so severe.
"Oh, please," she begged him, "do whatever you can so I can see her one last time. When our little Robin died, I refused to look at her in her casket, and I didn't let my other children see her. I've regretted that decision ever since. Please do what you can."
I believe it was the mercy of God that enabled the mortician to accomplish the monumental task Mom had asked of him. No one would ever have known how Debbie died. She was absolutely beautiful as she lay there, all dressed in pink and holding a little blue stuffed animal. She looked as though she were asleep. I couldn't help remembering the day she'd first come home to live with us, and how sweetly she slept on my bed, with the little beads of perspiration on her face. I still hadn't cried, and although I gave every appearance of being calm on the outside, inside I struggled. "Lord," I prayed, "I know your timing is impeccable, but right now, it seems cruel. I can't understand why you would do this! We come from a good Christian family. We honor you with our thanks at every meal. We worship you every week in church. Debbie was serving you when she died. Look at what Mom and Dad have been going through these past two months. Why now?"
We lived as though we were in a dream for the next few days. It was as though God gave us all some kind of supernatural anesthetic that deadened the pain and enabled us to get through those first awful days. About a week after the accident, Mom went into Debbie's room to go through her things to prepare to give them away. It was too soon. Suddenly all the "novocain" wore off at once.
"Oh God!" she shouted. "I don't understand! It isn't fair! It isn't fair! What have I done? What have I done? What did she do? It isn't fair!"
My Grandma Smith had flown out from Texas to be with us, and she ran down the hall. "Frances!" she called out to my mom. "Frances! Where is your faith? I'm ashamed of you!"
"You don't understand!" Mom cried. "You can't understand. You've never lost a child. I've lost two!"
"Frances," Grandma answered gently. "Debbie used to love flowers. Remember how she used to pick bunches of them for me when I came to visit? God's garden is the world, and His children are His flowers. He has a large mansion with many rooms. Sometimes He wants flowers for His mansion. Sometimes He picks a full-grown rose, sometimes half-opened. Sometimes a bud. He's taken a bud. Doesn't He have the right? It's His bud."
That seemed to settle it for Mom, and though she mourned Debbie's death, she was able to work through her grief with a renewed sense of faith and purpose. As she had done when our little Robin died, she began to write a book. The royalties from Dearest Debbie were donated to World Vision International, and once again, God began to redeem the pain of our loss.
Dad remained in the hospital, in deeper despair than I'd ever imagined. Hoping the familiar surroundings of the ranch would help, the doctors allowed him to come home. Dad grieved a long time for Debbie, and more than once I wondered if he had lost his faith altogether. It is true that Christians do not grieve in the same way unbelievers do, but pain is pain, and grieving is hard work. For the person in top physical condition, grief eats at the heart; for someone struggling to recover from serious illness and extensive surgery, it can be overwhelming.
Like us, Joanne Russell's family was hurting, too. Right after the funeral, Bob left home, and nobody knew where he was. His sons and I drove around town looking for him, and for a few days, Mrs. Russell thought he'd driven back East to be with some of his family. When that proved to be wrong, she filed a missing person's report.
About two weeks after the funeral, my friend George White came over for a visit. We were goofing around on the ranch, and we headed for one of the barns that nobody used. As we came close to the barn, I saw something shiny, and I realized it was a car. We walked toward it.
Suddenly George grabbed my arm. "Oh, God, Dusty," he said, "don't go any closer."
It was Mr. Russell's car, and he was sitting in it, but it was obvious that he had been dead for some time. He'd left the window open, and flies and maggots were crawling all over him. His face had puffed up, and his skin had turned black. The coroner said he'd overdosed on sleeping pills. There was evidence of carbon monoxide poisoning, too.
For weeks I could not erase the image of that moment. I couldn't think, I couldn't eat—and I couldn't sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, it was as though the picture had engraved itself permanently on my mind. I began to wonder if I would ever be free of the memory—the image—that tortured me. It was as though the devil himself were using it to weaken my faith, and I began to think he was succeeding. At church we had a prayer meeting, and the people laid hands on me, praying for deliverance from the oppression I felt.
"Lord," I said, "you are the only One who can help me. Please, please take these images away from me, and heal me of this awful experience."
Again, a kind of warmth settled over me, and from that day on, I never again was troubled by the memory of Bob Russell's tragic death. I remember it vividly to this day, but the images no longer torture me.
At that same prayer meeting there was a young girl who suffered from convulsions. I was with her when the first one hit, and as she dropped to the floor, I could see that she was having trouble breathing. I knelt beside her and turned her head so she couldn't bite her tongue. A seizure can be a frightening thing to witness, but for the person who experiences it, the emotional aftermath can be brutal. People tend to shun what they do not understand, mostly because of fear. But even though I'd never witnessed a seizure, I recognized it at once, and I didn't feel afraid. When the little girl's seizure came to an end, I reassured her. Her epilepsy was severe, and for weeks after that her mother would call me to come and sit with the girl because she was asking for me. Each time there was a seizure, I prayed for healing and deliverance.
Today's she's a wife and a mother, and I like to think that God used me in her life. Through Robin and Sandy's problems, God had shown me how to exercise compassion and minister hope.
The combination of these events made me realize something Mom had been trying to teach us for as long as I could remember. There is more to being a Christian than merely living in a Christian home, saying grace and attending church.
I'd received Christ as my Saviour when I was eight or nine years old, and I'd made my own choice to be baptized. In the fall of 1963, I'd rededicated my life to God at a Billy Graham Crusade for Christ in Los Angeles. But I was becoming acutely aware that God was interested in an even more personal relationship. In the months that followed, God was about to sharpen that awareness in ways I could never have anticipated.
TO BE CONTINUED